Although little was referenced about it in the trades, by 1985 the Walt Disney Company had come to a bad way. The visionary genius, arguably absent since Walt’s death in 1966 was only partly to blame for the company's current precarious financial situation. In the 1970’s the Disney empire was buffeted by changes on all sides; the gradual retirement of the original animators (‘9 old men’ as they had come to be known), responsible for setting the studio’s luxurious style throughout its golden period had seen its last flourish with Sleeping Beauty (1959), the new Xerox process for cell reproduction introduced in One-Hundred-and-One Dalmatians (1961) effectively closing Disney’s ‘ink and paint’ department for good. While the Xerox process undoubtedly streamlined the timeline from original animator’s drawings to acetate, it also tended to homogenize the look of Disney films throughout the late 1960’s and into the 70’s; a sacrifice that arguably reached its lowest ebb with The Black Cauldron (1985) – a darkly brooding and exceptionally costly flop.
But of even more alarming concern to the powers that be was the sudden audience shift away from family entertainment. This had been the company’s bread and butter for nearly 50 years. To many, it now seemed as though the Disney empire had run its course. In a desperate attempt to ‘contemporize’ the company’s image the studio made The Watcher in the Woods (1980) a woeful mangling of Florence Engel Randall’s supernatural novel: a pathetic attempt to straddle the chasm between adult themes and the Disney banner. The downward spiral continued with Disney’s foray into sci-fi; The Black Hole (1979) and Tron (1982) – thinly veiled endeavors to compete with the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises – capped off with another ‘horror’ movie - Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983). In retrospect, these troublesome productions exemplify how out of touch Disney had become with mainstream marketability. At the same time, Disney’s theme parks in Anaheim and Florida were not performing up to snuff with maintenance costs cannibalizing park attendance revenues.
Worse for the company’s image and legacy the new management fronted by Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg had effectively cast out the animation department from its cushy studio facilities. Disney Inc.’s focus was now being concentrated on live action movies and television serials. It was the end of an era. But it was also the beginning of an even more miraculous renaissance. Under directors Ron Clements and John Musker the animators (now housed in trailer facilities off the lot) resurrected a project that had languished in its preliminary stages since the mid-1930s; Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid (1989). The original fairy tale was not without its impediments – at least, in keeping with the Disney tradition of the proverbial ‘happy ending’. Andersen’s tender heroine perishes of a broken heart. To assist in their re-telling, Musker and Clements turned to Howard Ashman – a lyricist who would also serve as the film’s producer. Ashman brought Broadway composer Alan Menken on board. Together, this foursome devised a superb coup, earmarking The Little Mermaid as the first full-fledged animated ‘musical’ produced at Disney since The Jungle Book (1967).
In retrospect, The Little Mermaid’s animation is hardly indicative of the studio’s greatest works. In fact, in owes much more to the flavor of Saturday morning cartoons than a full-fledged feature made by Disney at the peak of its creative powers. The characters and backgrounds are all rendered in broad, easy-to-replicate lines and colors, the Xerox process having advanced in its ability to reproduce character outlines in various colors, mimicking hand-traced ink and paint. Also, whenever and where ever possible the animation is ‘reused’ – Ariel’s initial embrace with Prince Eric recycled with only a minor variation for their penultimate reunion. And yet, The Little Mermaid works – swimmingly – its solid story fleshed out with superb vocalizations from Jodi Benson, Pat Carroll, Buddy Hackett and Christopher Daniel Barnes – among others, and, a sumptuous score returning to the time-honored principles of Disney’s finest efforts. In short, The Little Mermaid resurrects the sheer joy of seeing a great fable expertly told.
The decision to do an animated musical was deliberate. During the late 1960s and ‘70s Disney had gradually eased away from including songs in their features – in part because the trend for big budget live action musicals produced elsewhere in Hollywood had suddenly fallen out of favor, but also due to the fact that song writers of that ‘Tin Pan Alley’ ilk were in short supply, and, the musical patina of rock n’ roll seemed an ill fit for the toddler trade. Perhaps, Disney’s executive brain trust had at long last seen the error of their ways. The animated features without music had not fared well at the box office. In their approach to the compositions for The Little Mermaid, Menkin and Ashman evoked an almost ‘Broadway-esque’ mélange; writing arias and ballads for the heroine, a bombastic set piece for the villain and two show-stoppers for the lovable sidekick, Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright). Their logic was sound, the songs infectiously hummable even upon a first listen.
Certain projects are just kismet, and in retrospect, The Little Mermaid is quite simply one of those that could not fail. At the time, however, it was a last ditch effort made mostly out of desperation to either secure the future of the studio’s commitments to their hand-drawn animation department or close its doors forever. While the old regime had benefited from Walt’s inspiration, loyalty and ever-present guidance, the new order seems to have thrived on the frenetic energy, chaos and realization that the balance of their fate could turn either way. While one can debate the stylistic qualities of the movie, no one can deny its execution or staying power – slickly package and with a narrative impetus that moves the story along on effortless joy, excitement and that intangible movie magic.
The Little Mermaid finds a home in our hearts because it takes all of the time-honored principles of the very best the studio has to offer, while ever so slightly tweaking the formula to bring everything up to date. Ariel is a very defiant heroine for which the term ‘girl power’ might have been coined; defying her father, King Triton (Kenneth Mars) and the evil sea witch, Ursula (Pat Carroll). She knows what she wants – to be human and in love with the handsome Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes) – and she also knows how to pursue her dreams and make them come true. The story eventually ironed out by Musker and Clements pivots on this empowering female identification; Ariel, the mermaid (voiced by Jodi Benson), whose increasing infatuation with the human world - and one human in particular - leads her into a devil’s pact with Ursula, almost to suffer the eternal consequence. Ariel sells her voice to Ursula for a chance to become human and pursue her sweetheart on land. Unfortunately, Eric does not recognize Ariel without her winsome pipes. He is further distracted when Ursula transforms herself into an attractive brunette with Ariel’s stolen voice inside her, employing hypnotic powers of persuasion. All seems lost until devoted friends, puffer fish, Flounder (Jason Marin), Scuttle the seagull (Buddy Hackett) and Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright) – a Calypso warbling crab come to Ariel’s rescue.
Whether kismet or simply from a long overdue absence of the formulaic Disney animated feature, audiences flocked to see The Little Mermaid, tipping the scales with a domestic gross of $84 million – a qualified hit by any stretch. The movie also utilized CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) for several key sequences – a digital process that has since replaced traditional hand-drawn and cell-painted animation. For Disney Inc., The Little Mermaid marked the beginning of a new golden age, one that would not only see profits from subsequent feature animation projects soar but also rejuvenate the public’s interests in their theme parks, live action movies (via Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures), as well as usher in the age of computer-generated animation and a burgeoning alliance with Pixar Studios.
Yet, in retrospect the film’s visuals do not hold up under more critical scrutiny. It’s hard to believe The Little Mermaid is 24 years old, but this Blu-ray gives back the opening night splendor with minor caveats. The last time Disney premiered The Little Mermaid on DVD it was something of a minor disaster, the overenthusiastic DNR heavy-handedly scrubbing the image of its more minute details, the colors becoming muted and pale by comparison to recollections of the movie as seen in theaters. Absence usually makes the heart grow fonder, but in The Little Mermaid’s case it then seemed to have all but stamped out any love for the movie. Bottom line: the DVD just looked awful. Now for the very great news: The Little Mermaid on Blu-ray is a near-perfect viewing experience. The film has been ‘converted’ to 3D. Thankfully, we still have the 2D rendering – much preferred for its lack of in-your-face distractions. The animation remains dated – again, adopting the look and feel of a Saturday morning cartoon. A slight softness persists and color occasionally seems less than ultra-vibrant. But the undersea palette is a feast, with clean, refined lines, exquisite textures and even a slight hint of film grain. The excessive Macro-blocking, noise and other digital anomalies suffered through on the DVD are a virtual non-entity on the Blu-ray. Great stuff.
Regarding the 3D edition, The Little Mermaid is, frankly, an ill-fit for the process. Technically, there’s nothing wrong with the conversion. But 3D tends to exaggerate the pop-up book quality of the art; the overall darkness of the underwater sequences limiting the spectacular ‘things jump out at you’ moments to a handful. Put into perspective – The Little Mermaid was never intended to be seen in 3D. It should never have made the leap into this third dimension. Now, for the caveats: it seems a handful of shots have been altered. The first is the opening; the interior of three clam shells – originally sea foam green, now looking quite blue. There’s also a weird ‘bar’ that appears then disappears in the upper right corner as Ariel and Eric leap from Ursula’s crown during the epic sea battle. Finally, someone at Disney Home Video has managed to juxtapose the shot of Flounder reacting to the climactic high note of Ariel’s ‘Part of Your World’. The animation doesn’t line up with the audio. All of the aforementioned are split-second occurrences on an otherwise impeccable mastering effort. If you don’t know what to look for you probably won’t notice any of this.
Disney Home Video’s DTS-HD 7.1 surround adds subtle tone and tenor to an already dynamic audio mix. Dialogue and songs exhibit a pristine and enveloping sound field, just a tad heavier in its center channel, but nothing to wildly distract. I’m not a fan of Disney’s ‘new’ extra features. When the studio produced its deluxe 2-disc DVD set they pretty much mined the wellspring for everything it was worth. The good news is that virtually all of the DVD extras make a welcomed reappearance on this Blu-ray, albeit without their video being up-converted for optimal presentation. The ‘making of’ documentary is comprehensive and well worth the price of admission, as is the audio commentary. As for the new stuff – Carly Rae Jepson sleepwalks her way through a painful music video. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to be a ‘Part of her world!’ There’s also some revealing live action model reference materials. Jodi Benson takes us on a tour of ‘New Fantasyland’ and we get to experience a lecture given by the late Howard Ashman. Like all of Disney’s Blu-rays, this one features ‘fast track’ and Disney Intermission – pointless, painful and just plain wrong. Bottom line: if you can overlook the aforementioned then The Little Mermaid on Blu-ray comes highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)